‘Emptying the Skies’ at the Environmental Film Festival

The 22nd annual Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital might cynically be described as the herding of backpack-wearing “woolly hippies” by greenback-seeking scientists and lobbyists.

Photo courtesy of Co-Director Douglas Kass.
Photo courtesy of Co-Director Douglas Kass.

But anyone can pan for gold among 200 green-hued movies slotted over two weeks – on screens ranging from E Street Cinema and the Smithsonian to the GALA Hispanic Theatre, and the Anacostia Library – and find some sparkling jewels.

Emptying the Skies, a 78-minute documentary by Douglas and Roger Kass based on a New Yorker article by Jonathan Franzen, is sure to get your hackles up. It artfully exposes the widespread poaching of millions of migrant birds funneling through southern Europe, where dining on delicate songbirds such as the Ortolan bunting remains a guilty (and disgusting) delicacy. It’s The Cove for bird lovers.

The film tracks a band of activists who risk life and limb to hunt loathsome and lying trappers – whose guard dogs even befriend the young freedom fighters working under the banner of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, or CABS.

We meet Andrea, Piero, and Sergio, all Italian good fellows up against a Mafioso-style industry — especially in Cyprus — that illegally sets out uncountable mist nets, glue traps, stone-crushing contraptions and limesticks upon which birds will light and then linger, frightened and tortured to death. The crazy-in-a-good-way lads also are battling centuries of tradition; it was the monks in Brescia, Lombardy, in northern Italy who first started trapping birds to serve with polenta.

The Kass Brothers offer breathtaking beauty and shuddering horrors against Franzen’s poetic narration. Rather than adopting the strident tone of many conservation-themed films, they focus on the quirky nature of our heroes on a mission almost as single-minded, sleep-deprived and fearless as that of the migrating birds. In cutting down nets and destroying cages, the men erase distinctions between what defines avian and human nature: Liberty is a basic right of both species.

Photo courtesy of Co-Director Douglas Kass.
Photo courtesy of Co-Director Douglas Kass.

Through the lens of humor, grace and grit, we are seduced to the cause. It dawns on us this is as much love story as documentary watching Andrea clean lime from a tiny bird’s feathers and tempt its beak with sugar water before releasing it – not expecting or getting any thanks.

A companion 8-minute short, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology-produced Field Report: Migratory Bird Trapping in South China, is more the straight-laced stuff of science non-fiction. Videographer Gerrit Vyn unveils a bleak, bird-free zone in China’s Guangdong province – except for those corpses entangled in wispy nets or in some of 1,500-plus glue traps he counted on just one portion of a mountain trail. Such wholesale extermination is unholy. “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” with the baked-songbird pie befitting the king, is forever after sickening.

EFF-Logo_Frog_4C(2)The films were shown on March 19, 2014 at E Street Cinema, among a wondrous biodiversity of eco-films. For a full schedule, go online. The festival, a good place to expend your energy, runs through March 30, 2014, at area theaters, museums, libraries and universities.


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